Did Jesus make love a general principle?

Last week I was listening to one of the most distinguished biblical scholars of his generation talking about applying the teaching of Jesus to politics. I have to confess to being disappointed. His approach was to isolate the double love commandment, the “summary of the law” as Jesus’ central ethical principles, and then suggest that we today had to work out how to apply those principles.

I have problems with this, the first of which is that it is unexceptional almost to the point of vacuity to say that politics should practice and promote the love of neighbour, while being controversial to the point of displacing liberal democracy to say it should promote the love of God. Unfortunately the emphasis was on applying the principle of the former while neglecting the disruptive nature of the latter.

The second problem I have with it is that I seriously wonder whether the way these commands are abstracted is helpful. There’s a sense in which there’s nothing that unusual in the conversation between Jesus and the scribe in Mark (12:28-34). It belongs with the rabbinic tradition that attributes to Hillel the summary of the law as “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary.” (Matthew’s Jesus also has his own version of that summary – Matt 7:12.)

While Matthew (22:34-40) essentially re-uses Mark’s story while making the scribe more antagonistic, Luke attributes the combination of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 with Leviticus 19:18 to the teacher of the Law. It is possible to read this as Luke not seeing its attribution to Jesus as significant. It is equally possible to see it as Luke thinking his readers / hearers will be so familiar with it as Jesus’ teaching that they read / hear the story as the lawyer deliberately choosing to parrot Jesus’ teaching back to him. John, of course, has neither command, but provides a potentially more sectarian “love one another” that appears nowhere in the synoptic tradition.

A love-ethic does feature significantly in Paul and early Christianity, and appears to echo Jesus tradition in many cases. However, there’s no evidence that, for those at home with first century Jewish readings of Torah, there is anything particularly unusual or exceptional in Jesus’ appropriation of these verses as either a summary or hermeneutical key to Torah. The way in which later Christian tradition singles them out as unusual, or revolutionary, may just be the default setting of Christian anti-Judaism. Given the priority of love, that is desperately ironic.

But there’s that other thing about detaching them from the rest of Torah, or Paul’s communal practice, as “ethical principles”. It means any particular definition of love, which may or may not owe anything to the particular practices the text has historically been embedded in, can be read into it without any other controls. Abstracting love as a general principle allows it to become whatever the reader wants it to be, and Jesus’ hermeneutical key for reading Torah becomes a contemporary means for ignoring it.

4 Replies to “Did Jesus make love a general principle?”

  1. I’d love to hear you elaborate a bit more on the last paragraph, Doug. I’ve got a hunch that you’re saying something I’ve been feeling for a long time.

  2. Hi Tim, feel free to elaborate your feeling here!

    I guess I mean that the word “love” gains its content from the stories, examples and practices a particular person, family, community learns, tells and does, and can therefore mean very different things to different people. No doubt I’ll return to that theme in the future.

  3. Thanks, Doug! I guess my disquiet has been around the number of times I’ve heard people say things like ‘love is the only command’, based on what I believe is a misunderstanding of statements that Paul makes in passages like Romans 13:8-10. The problem, as you say, is that the word ‘love’ can mean many things, and it’s especially misleading in our contemporary world where ‘love’ is generally understood to be an emotion that happens to you (and over which you have little control), rather than an action that you choose to do. I keep saying to people that ‘love is the fulfilling of the law’ doesn’t mean ‘love is the replacement of the law’. ‘Love’ needs some specific content added to it (which is why Jesus and Paul do in fact add other ethical instructions).

    My two cents’ worth.

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